Fundamental Principles Of Language Part II

It would be absurd and ridiculous to suppose that any person, however
great, or learned, or wise, could employ language correctly without a
knowledge of the things expressed by that language. No matter how chaste
his words, how lofty his phrases, how sweet the intonations, or mellow
the accents. It would avail him nothing if ideas were not represented
thereby. It would all be an unknown tongue to the hearer or reader. It
would not be like the loud rolling thunder, for that tells the wondrous
power of God. It would not be like the soft zephyrs of evening, the
radiance of the sun, the twinkling of the stars; for they speak the
intelligible language of sublimity itself, and tell of the kindness and
protection of our Father who is in heaven. It would not be like the
sweet notes of the choral songsters of the grove, for they warble hymns
of gratitude to God; not like the boding of the distant owl, for that
tells the profound solemnity of night; not like the hungry lion roaring
for his prey, for that tells of death and plunder; not like the distant
notes of the clarion, for that tells of blood and carnage, of tears and
anguish, of widowhood and orphanage. It can be compared to nothing but a
Babel of confusion in which their own folly is worse confounded. And
yet, I am sorry to say it, the languages of all ages and nations have
been too frequently perverted, and compiled into a heterogeneous mass
of abstruse, metaphysical volumes, whose only recommendation is the
elegant bindings in which they are enclosed.

And grammars themselves, whose pretended object is to teach the rules of
speaking and writing correctly, form but a miserable exception to this
sweeping remark. I defy any grammarian, author, or teacher of the
numberless systems, which come, like the frogs of Egypt, all of one
genus, to cover the land, to give a reasonable explanation of even the
terms they employ to define their meaning, if indeed, meaning they have.
What is meant by an "in-definite article," a dis-junctive
con-junction, an ad-verb which qualifies an adjective, and
"sometimes another ad-verb?" Such "parts of speech" have no existence
in fact, and their adoption in rules of grammar, have been found
exceedingly mischievous and perplexing. "Adverbs and conjunctions," and
"adverbial phrases," and "conjunctive expressions," may serve as
common sewers for a large and most useful class of words, which the
teachers of grammar and lexicographers have been unable to explain; but
learners will gain little information by being told that such is an
adverbial phrase, and such, a conjunctive expression. This is an
easy method, I confess, a sort of wholesale traffic, in parsing
(passing) language, and may serve to cloak the ignorance of the
teachers and makers of grammars. But it will reflect little light on the
principles of language, or prove very efficient helps to "speak or write
with propriety." Those who think, will demand the meaning of these
words, and the reason of their use. When that is ascertained, little
difficulty will be found in giving them a place in the company of
respectable words. But I am digressing. More shall be said upon this
point in a future lecture, and in its proper place.

I was endeavoring to establish the position that all language depends
upon permanent principles; that words are the signs of ideas, and ideas
are the impressions of things communicated to the mind thro the medium
of some one of the five senses. I think I have succeeded so far as
simple material things are concerned, to the satisfaction of all who
have heard me. It may, perhaps, be more difficult for me to explain the
words employed to express complex ideas, and things of immateriality,
such as mind, and its attributes. But the rules previously adopted will,
I apprehend, apply with equal ease and correctness in this case; and we
shall have cause to admire the simple yet sublime foundation upon which
the whole superstructure of language is based.

In pursuing this investigation I shall endeavor to avoid all abstruse
and metaphysical reasoning, present no wild conjectures, or vain
hypotheses; but confine myself to plain, common place matter of fact. We
have reason to rejoice that a wonderful improvement in the science and
cultivation of the mind has taken place in these last days; that we are
no longer puzzled with the strange phantoms, the wild speculations which
occupied the giant minds of a Descartes, a Malebranch, a Locke, a Reid,
a Stewart, and hosts of others, whose shining talents would have
qualified them for the brightest ornaments of literature, real
benefactors of mankind, had not their education lead them into dark and
metaphysical reasonings, a continued tissue of the wildest vagaries, in
which they became entangled, till, at length, they were entirely lost in
the labyrinth of their own conjectures.

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